32nd Sun Ordinary time, 11-12-17 Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm: 63:2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Once again our Lectionary is playing a trick on us. What does it do? Well, it leaves out the first word of our Gospel! What is that word? The word is, “Then”. Why does it matter? For two reasons: first, it lets us know that this part of Matthew’s Gospel is a series of teachings and parables about the end times. This parable is not free-standing and disconnected. Second, it tells us that Jesus is teaching about things in the future. In fact, all of verse one is important. Jesus says, “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to (or “will be like”) ten maidens who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” This lets us know we need to read it like a parable, which is a lesson which uses a story to explain some important point. The story isn’t the point, and the characters and setting aren’t the point – but the story is a way to make a point. The kingdom of heaven is “like” the whole story, not just parts of it or people in it.
One of the common problems with this parable is that people get hung up on the unimportant setting of the story. We don’t know a lot about the historical wedding traditions of Jesus’ day, and what we do know indicates that many areas had a variety of traditions.* Where the bridegroom was coming from or going to is not part of the story. This is not about the church, or the maidens, or lamp oil. When we focus on these things, we miss the point of the story. Let’s talk instead about what the parable teaches.
This is a parable that was in part clarified by the Dead Sea Scrolls, found only some 50 or so years ago (the writings of the Christian community at Qumran). The document 4Q434a* describes messianic times when evil ends, the earth is filled with God’s glory, and sins are reconciled. “(The Messiah) will console them in Jerusalem…like a bridegroom with his bride he will live for ever…his throne is for ever and ever…” This fits with Matt 9:15 (Cana wedding), Mark 2:19-20 (When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not fast), and Luke 5: 34-35 (also in response to questions about fasting); these are all scriptures where Jesus used the term “bridegroom” for himself. So, the coming of the “bridegroom” in our Gospel refers to the second coming of Jesus.*
Matthew also uses the idea of “I do not know you” in Matthew 7:23 when Jesus tells his followers, “No every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, those who do not do God’s will be told, “I never knew you; depart from me.” Scholars suggest that this was a common expression of the day for a teacher whose followers failed to follow through with what they had been taught*. This expression reminds us that there will be a final judgment – those who have done the will of God will be separated from those who chose their own beliefs and agenda. There are consequences for filling our days with goals that do not match God’s will, and leaving love and wisdom until “later.”
This parable was told to Jesus’ followers. But it also was a warning for all who heard him, Jew, Pharisee, or Gentile, us, then or now – to be prepared for Jesus’ return. The surrounding teachings in Matthew chapters 24 and 25 all stress the need for being ready for the end times – whether it should come earlier than expected or later than expected.
Indeed, the parable just before our reading is the parable about the servant who is drunk and abusive to the other servants because the master is away, and is not expected for some time. The master arrives sooner than expected and the servant is punished and thrown out. The servant was not ready. Now we read about women who are not ready when the bridegroom was delayed. In this instance, the parable is based on this delay. The delay* is the factor which reveals which women were prepared and which were not.
Some people have suggested that Matthew conceived this parable to assure Christians who feared that Jesus would not return. But there is no evidence of that here. Rather, we are reading about wisdom and foolishness in regard to being prepared. Jesus uses “Wisdom” and “readiness” as synonyms.* Matthew, Mark, and Luke all emphasized Jesus’ statement, “heaven and earth will pass away…but of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, not the Son, but the Father alone… therefore, be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.”
So, we are to be alert. We are not to sit on the sidelines, with a ready supply of beer and pretzels, and watch life go past us. Our call to readiness and preparedness is to faithfully fulfill our Christian calling. When we care for our neighbors, near and far, we actively display our faith for all to see. We are like lights in the darkness of selfishness and greed. We display love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22) In one of the great paradoxes of life, we find that by choosing a path which may appear difficult and burdensome, we find joy and peace.
We proclaim victory over death. We pray God’s Kingdom will come. We work so evil will come to an end. This is a way to live – each day and in every circumstance, a frame for how we approach life; the basis for every decision we make. Wisdom, Solomon wrote, “is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her. (Wisdom) hastens to make herself known, anticipating (our need for her)”; Wisdom will not disappoint us. And Jesus, upon his return, will find us ready.
*From Klyne R. Snodgrass’ book, “Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the parables of Jesus.” William B. Eerdmans Publisher, 2008, Pages 509-518.